Who can point to the exact moment when the conservative movement took hold in the US? Forty-five years ago when Barry Goldwater published his manifesto Conscience of a Conservative is as good a marker as any to my mind. In that book Goldwater called for dismantling most of the activities of the federal government. The federal government, he said, “is a Leviathan, a vast national authority out of touch with the people, and out of their control”. By Leviathan he had in mind such things as Social Security, regulation of business, setting health, education, and safety standards. Repealing such laws would, he said, serve the interest of liberty which was in great danger.
Conspicuously absent from his list of threatened liberties was any mention of civil liberties. No mention of the civil rights struggle swirling around him or the rights of citizens to vote. No particular interest in protecting the freedom of speech or assembly or the press. No particular concerns about the right to a fair trial or to due process of law or the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. No, although Goldwater ended his book with a ringing call to restore liberty, his concern with freedom was very thin gruel.
Conspicuously present in his book, however, was a concern with communists who, he said, needed to be controlled by an empowered government—particularly the military. Although the most recent president of his party had warned of the threat to freedom posed by a military-industrial complex, Goldwater was unconcerned.
Thus we have, in broad outline, the conservative movement. An unbridled enthusiasm for empowering the military; a general unconcern that civil liberties were in any way threatened; and a belief that Social Security and government regulation were the royal road to serfdom.
So how has that prediction turned out? Forty-five years later the results are in and it turns out conservatives had it upside down. Welfare states don’t lead to tyranny. Virtually every western democracy has had a welfare state for at least 75 years. Today these countries are about as far from an authoritarian state as you can get.
Meanwhile, the the military-industrial complex is in full bloom in Goldwater’s homeland, and conservatives, under the theory that the world is too dangerous for anything but commander-in-chief-government, have all but announced the end of constitutional government.